Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Bangles: Greatest Hits (1984-90)


(Columbia)

THE ESSENTIALS [hr]

As we are hardly the first to point out, the Bangles' platinum-selling hits collection opens with one of those runs of classics that spins you right 'round and around again, faithful like you rarely are at the evergreen possibilities of the pop song form: "Hero Takes a Fall" into "Going Down to Liverpool" into "Manic Monday" into "If She Knew What She Wants" into "Walk Like an Egyptian" into "Walking Down Your Street." It's like an airy, spirited walk across the '80s, brightly colored, big and bouncy. Only thing is, this chronological half-dozen gems signals a strange incongruity: coming from a band with four good songwriters, this run of their biggest hits incorporates only two actual originals, the first and last named.

It's easy enough to think of the Bangles as a big success story of the '80s and, measured in most superficial ways, they were. However, theirs is also a portrait of compromise that began almost before they had even fully established an identity as a band. Conversely it's easy to forget that, judging from their tastes, the scene in which they initially thrived and their choice of cover material, they had the same natural sound and base of influences as bands like the Cure, Yo La Tengo and the Soft Boys, whose Underwater Moonlight is nearly the utopian ideal of cerebral, witty guitar rock in the post-punk era totally uncorrupted by compromise. The Bangles' first EP is a shot of the same kind of real energy and enthusiasm but their songs hadn't caught up with their spirit and their playing just yet. All Over the Place consists mostly of originals that any band would rightfully be proud of, yet at least one member of the band felt even it was too polished.

Simultaneously with the "cleaned-up" sound that encroached on the Bangles' garage and Paisley roots after the stirring of Miles Copeland and Columbia Records into the pot, there was a marketing push to give the band a "style." You can see this in even the earliest of their videos for the major label. In fairness, labels did this to lots and lots of bands at the time but in the case of a group like the Bangles that comprised four women, the fixation on personal aesthetics had an obvious lecherous undertone that's hard to miss or deny. There was resentment over this, more resentment yet over record company people wondering which song would be the single and producers trying to put session musicians everywhere, but these things all happened anyway, one after another.

It's not fair to the Bangles to knock them for compromising, especially since all four of them, Vicki Peterson and Michael Steele most of all, seem to have had their doubts about the maneuvering required of them even in the '80s. At the time, of course, this was what was expected when a new band signed to a big label that assumed the hits would start flowing forth. And it's really the ballad of rock & roll in general: no more than a half decade earlier, the once-heroic Clash had slowly shed principles until they were exactly like a thousand other bands with cripplingly lame songs on the radio. The Bangles suffered with the added risk of being placed into some sort of a "women in rock" box that was inherently meaningless and looked obliviously past everything that made their music vibrant and affecting.

The two singles from All Over the Place are the most that Greatest Hits ever sounds like the band the Bangles really were -- the slight folk-rock inflection they add to Katrina and the Waves making a broad promise that was only partially filled years later when they took Simon & Garfunkel back to the top of the pops. It was these two singles and their videos that caught the attention of one Prince Rogers Nelson. He then made what may be the largest contribution to the Bangles' cultural longevity, a song called "Manic Monday."

As is often the case with songs Prince gave to others, if you listen to the initial demo he made for Apollonia 6 (with Apollonia and Prince sharing vocals) you'll find that the Bangles changed very little about the song or the arrangement suggested by its author aside from cleaning up the bridge slightly. Except in their earliest days as a club band, they were never radical interpreters of other writers' material, just very good ones. But "Manic Monday" is still a remarkable single, albeit one that obviously makes more sense in the context of Prince's inexhaustible decade than in the Bangles' arc. Its keyboard-heavy, slick production bears no resemblance to any of All Over the Place. Hoffs sings it perfectly, the harmonies are divinely rendered and arguably the most memorable, innately seductive aspect of the record. And though the song probably was given away at least in part because it resembles "1999" in melody and structure, it's of course a clever composition with sly, empathetic lyrics about working for the weekend with the events off the clock constantly swirling around one's head. In that regard, at least, the song fit well with the Bangles' favored, trustworthy twentysomething angst.

There's been ample speculation about the nature of Prince's interest in the band over the years, which in some ways led to the beginnings of a fracture: not that anyone was jealous if Prince had the hots for Susanna Hoffs, but the way it became the basis for the bulk of press attention paid to the band bred understandable resentment. Hoffs, not the lead singer of the band (they didn't have one) but the singer of most of their hits, gradually overtook the others as the central figure, the "face" of the Bangles. In what was meant from the beginning to be a unit of equals, this was toxic, and neither Hoffs nor the others seem to have been given much of a say in it. It's disappointing to see and to say it, but the group really did get sucked into the machine and never had the chance to get actually started being a band on their own terms.

Thus, by Different Light -- the group's biggest-selling album -- the seeds of the Bangles' dismantling had already been planted. This also was the album whose recording sessions were marked by a rift between producer David Kahne and the band over the perceived deficiencies of their playing -- Debbi Peterson's drums most of all -- against the (very odd, but nearly universal) desire for arid digitized perfection on hit songs circa 1986. Tortured as the origins might have been, the spoils came quickly. "Manic Monday" was an enormous hit, followed by two more non-originals. In fairness, "If She Knew What She Wants" -- a Jules Shear number just a year old as of 1986 -- was another glossy, sledgehammer-sensitive pop ballad in the "Manic Monday" vein with an excessively clean, sterilized sound... and somehow, it once again shimmers and even defines its time beautifully, its opening wordless cooing and ringing guitars as evocative of a certain kind of summer as the introduction of Mary Wells' "My Guy" once was. It's as intricately crafted as any song they ever released and ties with "Going Down to Liverpool" as the best of their recorded covers ("Manic Monday" excluded).

Presumably "Walk Like an Egyptian," a #1 hit, needs no introduction; its embarassingly stupid video's domination of MTV -- with Hoffs mugging more effectively than her bandmates, in a manner that now seems prophetic -- would have been enough to imprint it on the cultural memory of 1986, but the song was everywhere at the time. Even I remember it, and remember loving it, and I was three years old. Hearing it now, the reasons for its success are quite obvious. It might be a novelty song, but it's unstoppably catchy and brilliantly produced by Kahne with a nod to early industrial rock and the boxy club sound of Art of Noise's "Close (To the Edit)," all co-opted in a shining pop nugget that -- for the first time -- successfully avoids any possible condescending gendered categorization, and not just because the vocals, as trite as the stuff they're singing may be, are engagingly brash.

Emboldened by what was now a run of major hits that could no longer be classified as flukish, Columbia finally sent one of the Bangles' own originals into the marketplace as a single. "Walking Down Your Street" proved just as engaging with radio and the larger pop audience, and as a side benefit it was the most conventionally guitar-oriented "rock" song they'd issued since the All Over the Place period, even if Kahne's "big '80s" treatment of it delivers a song that sounds a bit too well-contoured to the airwaves of its day. The song is evergreen, but the record itself hasn't aged as well as Kahne's other hits with the band. Still, scoring a hit with what was, at least in part, a Hoffs composition brought forward the even more inspired choice of "Following," a stark and unpolished folk-rock acoustic number written and sung by Michael Steele, breaking the pattern of singles with Hoffs vocals and willfully expanding perceptions of the band's sound. Laid down in the middle of Greatest Hits, it feels something like a misplaced Laura Nyro or Suzanne Vega track; Steele's delivery of periodic songs breaking the mold of expectations attached to the band made her sort of their de facto George Harrison or Dan Bejar. "Following" plays well to her strengths and is genuinely haunting; an album full of songs that gave the floor to the four Bangles as musicians rather than electrified pop tarts would obviously have been preferable for all of them, but too many shareholders were now coming to the meetings.

It's somewhat confusing just where the band's role in all the breakdown and compromise began and ended; this seems often to be the case in such a collective, in this case with four apparently nice and malleable people not wanting to step on any of the other three's toes or let down any bigwigs. Vicki Peterson would remember being confused when the Bangles' continued identity as a band became tied to singles, videos, the look; she cited the label as a culprit, maybe her bandmates. Hoffs told interviewers at the time that she was determined the band's third album would concentrate on straightforward, loud rock & roll. In fact, the desire for a return to some semblance of their now distant and radically different original seems to have been shared by everyone in the group.

At first they fulfilled such campaign promises and, as a side benefit, proved themselves more than capable of handling their output successfully with little outside interference through a massive hit cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter," from the soundtrack to an Andrew McCarthy movie no one remembers. Though I'm fond of the original, the Bangles do improve it (if not nearly as much as the Diodes improved "Red Rubber Ball") and add considerable spark and urgency to it without sacrificing its melodic craftiness or the sparkling, now-dated production that had become a trademark since the band had acquired a mainstream audience. It's a remarkably satisfying single, given an FM-friendly but not excessively professional sound by Rick Rubin. The Bangles felt they had greater control when working with Rubin and remembered the experience of making the record fondly, so it's strange that they moved onward to another overly tested hit factory professional, Davitt Sigerson, for their third album.

The sessions for Everything and subsequent tour brought the band's interpersonal issues and frustrations to the boiling point, and they anticlimactically parted ways barely a year after it was released. In the meantime it offered one of their most enduring hits, a staple on adult-contemporary radio even now. Unfortunately "Eternal Flame" is about as far as the Bangles ever got from the sort of music that made them engaging in the first place. Vicki Peterson rightfully stated that it had nothing to do with the Bangles and was essentially a Susanna Hoffs solo outing that would more rightfully have belonged to someone like Whitney Houston, not the Bangles. That it became their second #1 despite this problem likely ensured that the star-making forces brooding around Hoffs would end up rupturing the group, even though Hoffs hadn't necessarily set this as her target. Of course, there's precedent for "Eternal Flame" in the band's myriad reference points, most obviously the Beatles' "Yesterday," which in reality features no Beatle except Paul. But "Yesterday" was an anomaly and was always meant as such; the band never wanted it to be a single and it became one only in America, against their wishes. "Eternal Flame" clearly points in a new direction for the Bangles' name and reputation, and its massive popularity thereby makes clear that Columbia and the group's new management team would feel justified in edging the group ever further away from the type of music at least three fourths of them wanted to be making.

The other singles from Everything actually do retain the rock & roll mission statement; "In Your Room" is honestly the best Bangles original in this package, and their best song post-All Over the Place. You can maybe carp with the programmatic sensuality of the lyric, which at the operative moment of Hoffs' winking "I wonder what you're gonna do to me" sounds almost like the result of a focus group survey comprised wholly of young men, but it also functions as a reaffirmation of the band's ownership of themselves -- their music, their image and, sure, their expressions of desire -- because it is, like "Hazy Shade of Winter," a track that embraces the contemporary, hyped-up production style of Different Light without completely copping to it. It sounds like the All Over the Place band in a bigger studio with a hotter producer, with excellent punk-derived guitar and airy harmonies, because that's exactly what it is. It's a wonderfully adolescent, invigorating fantasy on record.

The other two singles from Everything -- "Be with You" and "I'll Set You Free" -- happily stick to the "In Your Room" mold, even if they don't quite overflow with hooks. "Be with You" returns drummer Debbi Peterson to the microphone and tackles stadium rock more than competently, while the sentimental "I'll Set You Free" manages to fuse the Bangles' garage-Paisley Underground and Younger Than Yesterday roots with '80s pop almost perfectly. It's one of the few songs here that would sound at home as much on an alternative station as on an adult contemporary one, thanks in large part to Hoffs' distinctive rhythm guitar. The excellent new cut "Everything I Wanted" heads back even farther into the jangle closet, which may be why it was left off Everything, leading perfectly into their early Grass Roots cover "Where Were You When I Needed You." By letting "Eternal Flame" stand as a strange aberration and having the end of the sequence refer back to the beginning, Greatest Hits functions well as a portrait of the band the Bangles strove to be, hidden behind and sometimes conflicting with the one they played on television.

That speaks to a broader point which is probably a sign of the times in which the group came about. Later on in the '80s, alternative rock not wholly unlike the sort the Bangles were generating effortlessly in their first few years was making waves uncompromised on mainstream radio. Bands like U2, Depeche Mode and even the relatively unadulterated R.E.M. may have altered their ambitions and their sound slightly on the road to becoming household names, but there's little to no evidence they ever had their talents co-opted or nudged along in a certain direction by businessmen and label officials. Were those headaches foisted on the Bangles because they were women, because they arrived a few years too early, or both? Regardless, the ancillary benefit of this bad situation -- which, it should be said, they've made the best of, remaining a popular draw whenever they reconvene -- is a lot of great pop records that, as Vicki Peterson said, weren't necessarily music that required the Bangles themselves to come along and play. If they'd been able to follow a more natural, modest trajectory, we might have heard a true progression from All Over the Place and witnessed a tight rock band evolving as they themselves saw fit. We can never know, but in this reality "Manic Monday," "In Your Room" and "If She Knew What She Wants" might be enough compensation.

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